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Sunday, June 05, 2011

How to Carry on a Debate in a Comment Thread: A Case Study

Like most people, I am not fond of debating others. And I wonder how some people can do it while remaining calm and collected, whereas most people lose their tempers.

Here I do an informal study of how Father Robert Barron engages his commenters on his YouTube threads. Fr. Barron is a learned Catholic priest who takes the time to dialogue with people leaving comments. I wanted to know how he handles comments that are ill-informed or spiteful, so I examined a sampling of his responses on a thread on one of his more popular videos, on Bill Maher's movie "Religulous", with 7,966 total comments.

This may be a useful model if you ever find yourself in a vigorous internet debate on a topic that you are passionate about.

* * * * *

Fr. Barron typically answers objections using reasoning, from premises to conclusions:

But if the first cause is truly non-contingent, then it must be a reality which exists through the power of its own essence. And this means that it is the unlimited act of existence itself and hence perfect. The claims of Catholic theology concerning the attributes of God follow from this insight.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He answers objections directly and concisely, drawing on science and philosophy:

The scientific consensus is that time and space came into being at the Big Bang. This in itself proves that they are, to use my language, contingent, dependent. Therefore, we must search for a cause outside of them. If we are to avoid an infinite regress of caused causes, we must come, eventually, to that which exists through itself, that which, in principle, has no cause. This is what Catholic theology means by God.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He sometimes has to repeat points, which he does patiently:

Again, anything that comes into being, that oscillates, that proceeds from potency to act is contingent, according to the classical definition. And therefore it stands in need of an explanation. We can't just go back indefinitely through a chain of similarly contingent causes. And so we must come finally to that which exists through itself. This is what Catholic theology calls God.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He acknowledges points of agreement, and clarifies unapologetically where he differs:

You're absolutely right in saying that the source of our trouble is sin. Religious people are sinners, and non-religious people are sinners. What I have resisted resolutely on this forum is the insinuation that religion is, in itself, the privileged source of evil.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

If someone says something dumb, Fr. Barron calls him on it. To save time, he points to relevant books. You can tell, too, that he is a lover of language:

Well, now you're just being silly. Take a look at Martha Nussbaum's book Upheavals of Thought in order to see how the visceral and the emotional can have a properly cognitive valence.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Sometimes Fr. Barron gets exasperated, and he lets it show a bit with some mild sarcasm:

Ah, more tiresome binary options! It's either rational or emotional; it's either literal science or nonsense. Every real act of cognition involves a subtle blending of what one might call the rational and the emotional. There is no "purely rational" perception. Like all really great texts, the Bible appeals to the whole of the person.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

And sometimes his personal exasperation is more pronounced:

Oh come on! Why are you laying all of this on me? I'm proposing things that I think are true. Tell me where you think I'm wrong. Anyone--very much including yourself--who makes a truth claim is trying to bring others to his position. What's so surprising or objectionable about that?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Sometimes a quick word is all that is needed:

That's why you need the church!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

He corrects misconceptions about Catholicism by stating accurately what the Catholic Church believes:

I saw Maher's movie and I have heard him for years. I'm well acquainted with his views on the Bible. I simply wanted to point out how naive they are. In regard to your question, the Catholic answer is "the church," which is to say a 2000 year tradition of conversation, reflection, and interpretation. The Bible is indeed a collection of complex texts. Why should we expect that they should be easy to understand?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A knowledge of art helps:

So there's no truth in the Illiad, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, The Old Man and the Sea? These are, from a journalistic standpoint, all untrue stories. But are they therefore worthless? Aren't they in fact some of the treasures of our intellectual tradition? Come on, folks, let's get beyond fundamentalism!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A knowledge of influential thinkers helps:

Ah yes, another prophet of the end of religion. Please consult the similar prophecies of the imminent demise of religion penned by Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mao Tse-Tung, and Sigmund Freud. They're all gone; religion is still here!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A knowledge of history helps:

Friend, do a little elementary research into the fathers of the church and you'll find that spiritual and theological readings of Genesis have been offered for nearly 20 centuries. And has it occured to you that God doesn't want to "work around our flaws" but rather to speak his Word precisely through our culturally-conditioned human words?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Fr. Barron sometimes takes the time to answer silly comments, when the questioner is merely uninformed rather than spiteful:

a library is big! with billion of books. the bible is 300 pages long! hello.!

scienceissexxxy 2 years ago

Well, my Bible is two thousand pages of very small print. And it's made up of over seventy texts, from a wide variety of literary genres and from different periods and written by a whole slew of different authors. That makes it like a library, it seems to me.

wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Sometimes Fr. Barron sees beyond the question to a personal problem or block in the questioner, and pursues that:

Hmmm. Tell that to Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Mother Teresa, John of the Cross, and John Paul II. They've all found a fair amount of truth in the Biblical narratives. Like so many others on this forum, you have expand your notion of what counts as truth.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

If the person is uninformed, sometimes the best thing to do is to tell them to read up:

Friend, you have got to read some basic theology. You're just talking nonsense now. Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I'm continually surprised how pervasive fundamentalism is, especially among the non-believers.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Note Fr. Barron's tone. He is not a soggy towel letting people walk all over him. Neither does he resort to insulting or name-calling. The tone is that of the mildly exasperated, mildly sarcastic, though patient, intellectual:

Friend, please give me the chapter and verse where God is depicted in the Bible as "a magical man in the sky clicking his fingers?" As I've said now about a thousand times, the Bible often speaks the evocative, multivalent language of poetry. The book of Genesis, in sublime theological poetry, teaches that all reality comes from the creative power of an intelligence that stands outside of nature and finitude. What is ridiculous about that?
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

Fr. Barron doesn't have enough space in a YouTube comment to give a comprehensive explanation of some matters, so sometimes he will leave important concepts unexplained (for example, he mentions "intelligibility" which could be expanded into a whole discussion on Aristotelian teleology). Hopefully it sows a seed of a concept that the reader will look into further:

God didn't put fossils in place so that science could later "discover" them. But God did indeed put intelligibility in things. Otherwise, science would have nothing to know!
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

A micro-analogy can help to make a point:

So religion doesn't get questioned at all by its followers? Have you read any serious theology? Have you consulted any serious journal of religion? Some of the sharpest critics of religion I know are religious people.  Just as loyal Americans can be critical of America, so deeply believing people can turn a critical eye toward the problems within religion.
wordonfirevideo 2 years ago

* * * * *

The general tone is that of someone who is knowledgeable and trying to be patient. A little bit of exasperation, a little sarcasm, the occasional curt reply are all expected and fine. But it never degenerates into name-calling or insulting the other person. To save time, he gives a quick analogy, or gestures toward ideas that would require further explanation (such as intelligibility), or points to relevant books/authors.


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